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Welcome to a night out with the stars

The air is laced with rain when I meet Richard Holmes in a tiny hamlet in the Cheviot Hills, not far from the Scottish border. The big attraction of the walk we're about to embark upon is the prospect of learning how to navigate by the stars, so a clear night would be a major plus.

Shepherds Walks, the company Richard guides for, has just started taking groups out at night, although as a long-serving member of the Northumberland Mountain Rescue Team, he has been stalking these hills in the dark for years. We set off at twilight, armed with a small torch and a laminated map. The spooky, leafless trees around us are plainly visible as we start up a modest hillside track. But by the time we've climbed halfway, I can barely see a thing. Everything is pitch black in mist, including - alas - the sky.

It feels disconcerting at first, drifting through remote wilderness in the absolute dark, but also pleasantly liberating. In the absence of stars, Richard uses artificial light to orient us. The sodium glow above Rothbury to the south, the red dots of a radio mast on the other horizon and the far-distant light of a farmhouse to the west: these become our points of reference.

My eyes gradually begin to adjust to the darkness as we continue upwards. "Use your peripheral vision," Richard urges me, pointing at some indistinct object in the gloom. I do what he says, looking at the object through the corner of my eye, and it resolves itself into a cairn.

An outdoors activity in which the scenery is all but obscured seems rather unorthodox, but in fact it's really enjoyable. There are the remains of an Iron Age fort on the way up the hill, and a grove full of red squirrels on the way down, but it doesn't really matter that we can't see them. The imagination works better without the eyes distracting it. All the same, it's a pity we've had to imagine the stars rather than actually seeing any.

It's as we are trotting down the steep far side of the hill that the mist suddenly clears and - at long last - we are afforded an unexpectedly perfect view of the heavens. I let out a whoop. Living in towns and cities, you forget what a proper starry sky looks like: it's glorious. Richard points out the Plough and, above that, Polaris, the North Star, which we could have been using to guide us all along. Other constellations are handy as reference points, he tells me, but only for short periods: they drift at a rate of 15 degrees an hour.

The mists swallow us up again before long and we complete our circle of the lonely moors. The five-mile trek has taken us a good three hours. My boots are wet and my fingers are frozen - and the clouds, which haven't given me much of a break during my sojourn in the north-east, have settled in for a long stay - but none of that really matters. I've had my moment of meaningful communion with the universe and I'm happy.


Shepherds Walks (01830 540453; offers guided walks and holidays in Northumberland, Cumbria and the Scottish borders. The next "Walk into the Dark" night hike is on 28 February and costs £10.